"john & jen"
Music Theatre of Connecticut, Westport
The main thing the Music Theatre of Connecticut has going for its productions is its intimate theater space. Tucked away beneath a Colonial Green building in downtown Westport, the 42-seat venue is like a dark, mysterious cave. One expects the secret places of the heart to be explored.
And indeed MTC works very well in creating intimate theater experiences. At times this has worked beautifully for certain shows—memorably an Anne Frank musical years ago, a piece which cried out for a claustrophobic setting.
This time around the setting continues to work its magic, but the piece itself never meets the hoped-for highs, the “aha” moments. Though executive Artistic Director Kevin Connors skillfully guides “john & jen” through its emotional moments, and actors Tommy Foster and Catherine Porter labor mightily, it is hard to care what happens to John and Jen.
Why is this? Is it that the tale is predictable? Yet it is an acceptable tale. This two-character piece (with music by Andrew Lippa, lyrics by Tom Greenwald, and book by both) follows the lives and fortunes of one family—namely Jen and her kid brother (who later morphs into her son). The first act features an abusive off-stage father and two siblings who struggle to survive through mutual love. (Where is their mother in this soap opera? Apparently non-existent.) This gives rise in the second act to Jen as an over-possessive mother and another John as her rebellious son.
Is it that the music is pleasant but hardly striking or memorable? True. Yet Lippa and Greenwald have cleverly taken innocent songs of the first act to an ironic level in the second, giving them a different twist. Such moments prove thoroughly satisfying. (Though “john & jen” is a long way from “Gypsy,” one is reminded of “Let Me Entertain You.”)
As to the acting team: Foster, despite a fine singing voice, appears ungainly and uncomfortable in his two roles as Jen’s brother and later as her son. Perhaps to compensate, Porter appears to carry the weight of the show (as well as her brother and son) on her back (figuratively, if not literally). Though her songs are beautifully sung, she works too hard to move through the story.
Yet there are delightful highlights—familiar though they are (or perhaps because they are familiar): the proper girl turned hippie when she goes off to college in the ‘60s and the Little League player humiliated by his mother’s overbearing presence. Such moments still make a visit to the underground MTC theater a worthy trek.
-- -Irene Backalenick
Oct. 11, 2008